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Cuomo: 'We are by no means out of the woods,' as coronavirus deaths rise; 779 deaths a new daily high for NY

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday that the number of patients hospitalized is down, but stressed the need to continue to practice social distancing. Newsday's reporter Cecilia Dowd has the story.  Credit: Newsday staff

Newsday is opening this story to all readers so Long Islanders have access to important information about the coronavirus outbreak. All readers can learn the latest news at newsday.com/LiveUpdates.

This story was reported by Jim Baumbach, Rachelle Blidner, Robert Brodsky, Alfonso A. Castillo, Matthew Chayes, Zachary R. Dowdy, Candice Ferrette and Bart Jones. It was written by Jones.

New York reported another day of record high deaths from coronavirus, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday, but at the same time showed hopeful signs the "curve" of cases is starting to flatten.

A downcast Cuomo said 779 deaths were counted Tuesday, sending the state’s total past 6,000 and for him evoking memories of another dark time in the state's history.

“I went through 9/11. I thought in my lifetime I would never see anything like that again," he said. “That this should literally eclipse that in terms of numbers of dead in this state? It’s almost unimaginable to me."

Among the latest victims of the COVID-19 virus was an intensive care unit nurse at Long Island Community Hospital in East Patchogue — the second nurse on Long Island known to die from the virus.

In his twin messages of despair and hope, Cuomo said the number of new hospitalizations remained fairly flat, indicating the curve of the pandemic may be flattening out in New York.

“How do you square those two things? We’re making progress. We lost more people than ever before on a single day,” he mused in his daily press briefing in Albany.

He warned that New Yorkers must continue to adhere to strict social distancing directives; otherwise, the numbers would shoot up again "in 27 minutes."

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"We are by no means out of the woods," he said, adding that there is still a "big caution sign" for New York.

The ongoing devastation of the pandemic was underscored Wednesday on Long Island with Nassau County reporting a daily record number of new cases: 1,938.

Suffolk also reported one of its highest daily numbers: 1,327 new cases.

For at least a week, both counties have added close to 1,000 or more new positive test results every day, indicating the pandemic is far from under control in the region.

The counties reported more deaths: Another 66 residents died in Nassau on Tuesday, bringing the county’s toll to 566. In Suffolk, 60 people died from the virus, for a total of 323, according to the latest state figures.

Cuomo said he is ordering flags to fly at half-staff in the state to honor coronavirus victims.

In New York State, the virus has killed more than double the number of people than were killed at the World Trade Center in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Cuomo said. New York has more coronavirus cases than any country outside the United States, including the two next hardest-hit — Spain and Italy.

Even as Cuomo delivered the sobering news to New Yorkers, President Donald Trump later Wednesday talked about reopening the economy, saying people "are going stir-crazy."

“It would be nice to open with a big bang, open up our country," Trump said at his daily press briefing at the White House. "I would say we are ahead of schedule.”

However, he said he won’t make any decision until he consults with experts and health officials, and had not picked a specific new date to reopen. He had previously mentioned Easter.

Vice President Mike Pence said the country has made “great progress” in states like New York and California, where "evidence of stabilization … may be reaching the point that the impact of the coronavirus is beginning to level off.”

At his press briefing, Cuomo lamented the impact of the virus among minority communities and poor people in the state, who seem overrepresented in the grim tally of deaths, and vowed to immediately put resources toward more testing and research in those communities.

On Long Island, the largest concentrations of coronavirus cases have been in neighborhoods with significant Latino communities, such as Brentwood, Central Islip, Huntington Station and Hempstead.

The number of confirmed cases statewide rose by 10,453 for a total of 149,316 diagnoses since testing started, state figures released Wednesday showed.

Nassau County's total was 18,548, while Suffolk's reached 15,844. New York City reported 5,692 new positives for a total of 81,803, and 4,571 deaths to date.

Suffolk on Wednesday afternoon issued an updated and higher total for confirmed coronavirus cases, reaching 17,008. The state and localities have reported different figures, depending on when the data are gathered and whether only residents are included in their reports.

Death of a nurse

The registered nurse who died Tuesday at Long Island Community Hospital after being infected with COVID-19 was identified by hospital officials as Ali Dennis Guillermo, 44.

Guillermo had spent 15 years as an intensive care unit nurse at the independent hospital and “personified our mission of compassionate care,” said Richard T. Margulis, the hospital’s chief executive.

“Ali’s passing is a sad and stark reminder that no person, no community, no institution is invulnerable to the COVID-19 virus,” Margulis said.

Debra Grimm, LICH's chief nursing officer, said in a statement that Guillermo was known for his “electric smile” and was a “compassionate person with outstanding nursing skills and superior knowledge.”

Guillermo is the second nurse reported to have died on Long Island amid the coronavirus pandemic. John Abruzzo, who worked at Huntington Hospital, died April 2, officials said.

In an email to LICH staff Tuesday, Margulis said Guillermo is survived by wife Romiely and his children Denice, Ali Dennis and Aljion.

Flattening the curve

In Albany, Cuomo told New Yorkers to brace for more bad news as the number of deaths rises even while new hospitalizations steady or decline, giving some hope.

“When you get up tomorrow morning, the news could be just as bleak," he said.

Still, referring to hospitalizations and other indicators, he said, We are flattening the curve. Thank God, thank God, thank God."

Deaths from COVID-19 typically occur days or weeks after a patient is hospitalized, meaning mortality usually lags behind the hospitalization rate. 

Cuomo indicated that because of social distancing and other measures such as school and business shutdowns, the projected toll of the pandemic may be lower than some initial estimates.

He said other good news is that some hospital systems in New York are releasing more COVID-19 patients than they are taking in, a "net down."

If the trend holds, he said, it "will minimize the need for overflow" at the Jacob Javits center in Manhattan, which has been turned into a temporary hospital, and the USNS Comfort hospital ship docked nearby.

"The dramatic actions in the state" to promote social distancing and avoid exposure to the virus have been reducing the spread, he said, but those results should be considered alongside "a big caution sign" that those efforts need to continue in full force.

On Tuesday, 586 people in New York State were hospitalized because of coronavirus, compared to a high of 1,427 hospitalizations on Thursday last week.

The governor showed a slide with faces of New Yorkers — among them nurses, police officers and doctors — to underscore the human toll of the disease.

“Every number is a face, right? And that has been painfully obvious to me,” a somber Cuomo said, as he expressed surprise and grief at the virus' numbers compared to 9/11 in New York.

The coronavirus front-line workers who have died "were putting themselves at risk and they knew they were" but did it anyway. Others were "vulnerable people who this vicious predator of a virus targeted from Day One" and hurt more because of underlying health conditions. "It’s our job as a society to protect those vulnerable.”

Disparate impact in some communities

Addressing the inequality of the outbreak's impact in minority communities, he said the state would immediately pursue more research and testing in those communities and wondered out loud why those communities would be disproportionately affected — even comparing the uneven impacts to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, another national disaster that had a disparate effect.

"Why are more African Americans and Latinos affected? … Well, comorbidity, but I think there’s something more to that. It always seems the poorest people pay the highest price. Why is that?” Cuomo said. "Let’s learn from this moment and let’s learn from these lessons and let’s do it now.”

He added that during Katrina, “the people standing on those rooftops" pleading to be rescued "were not rich white people."

New state Health Department data shows that blacks and Hispanics represent 62% of New York City coronavirus deaths and 32% of fatalities across the rest of the state, including Long Island.

In the five boroughs, 27% of deaths are white, while that number jumps to 62% elsewhere in the state, the data shows.

More than 60% of COVID-19 deaths are men and nearly 83% are ages 60 or older, the figures show.

Death toll 'extraordinary'

In an MSNBC appearance, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said Long Island's death toll was “extraordinary,” having surpassed 1,000, according to the state.

“To think back a month ago, we didn’t have a single confirmed case,” he said. “Now we have more confirmed cases than every other state in this country except for New York and New Jersey."

Bellone attributed the high number of cases to a lack of testing early on.

“We didn’t know about those cases because testing wasn’t available,” he said. “Now the tens of thousands of tests done have revealed the truth: This virus has spread everywhere.”

And with a 46% positive rate, “It is clear you have a huge amount of transmission that is occurring, he said.

The county received 200,000 N95 masks from the White House on Tuesday night and has gotten 136 ventilators from the state in the last 48 hours, he said. While supplies are critical, “staffing is really the toughest challenge right now.”

“We have hundreds of health care workers who have contracted the virus,” Bellone said. “It really brings it home the dangers they are facing,” adding health care workers are working in “the medical equivalent of a war zone.”

De Blasio: 'Double down, double down'

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking on CNN on Wednesday morning, cautioned against the temptation to relax social-distancing measures because of early “positive” signs that fewer patients than expected need ventilators.

“We cannot let our guard down. Do not let the pedal off the gas," he said on CNN's "New Day" program. He added: “We want to defeat this thing once and for all. It’s not going to be overnight.”

“Double down, double down,” he said.

In an interview with Fox 5 New York, de Blasio said the city had forecast that, at this point in the week, an additional 300 more people would need ventilators. That number is closer to 100 more and, he said, "That may even be going down.”

He said the city is seeing a decline in "the number of people going into the hospital."

De Blasio also said the city plans to launch a multimillion-dollar outreach campaign to minorities, in 14 languages, which will include ads, robocalls and "peer-to-peer texting."

"What do we know about who is being afflicted by this disease? Who are we losing? What does it tell us? Are there some larger realities that we need to look at here? The answer is yes, there are," de Blasio said, adding: "There are clear inequalities, clear disparities, in how this disease is affecting the people of our city."

Alarming infection rate at MTA

Ridership on the Long Island Rail Road has fallen by 97% as compared to the same period last year, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Patrick Foye said Wednesday. He said similar drops have occurred at the MTA's other agencies, including buses and subways.

The rate of infection remains high among MTA workers. About 1,500 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, including 41 who have died. Foye, who also tested positive, fought back against criticism that the transportation agency was slow to provide workers protections, including masks.

In a letter to The New York Times, Foye said that as a “transportation organization, not a medical provider,” the MTA initially followed the advice of the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which, until recently, did not recommend the use of masks. Foye said the MTA later “disregarded” that advice and distributed 460,000 masks to its workforce.

“The MTA’s singular focus is on protecting our heroic employees and customers,” Foye wrote. “Any suggestion otherwise is baseless.”

Bill to help essential workers

Sen. Charles Schumer said he is pushing Congress to include a “Heroes Fund” that would put as much as $25,000 into the pockets of essential workers on the front lines fighting a global pandemic into the next coronavirus-related stimulus package.

The proposal, backed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Democratic senators in states including Washington, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico, is designed as a form of hazard pay for men and women whose jobs as medical workers, grocery store employees, janitors, transit and postal workers and others keep communities afloat.

“After 9/11, we had real heroes and we helped them in any way we could — police, fire, construction workers who rushed to the towers,” Schumer said. “In COVID-19, we also have heroes — doctors, nurses, medical personnel, EMTs, as well as the guy who is at the counter in the drugstore, the guy who packs food in the grocery.”

Schumer spokesman Angelo Roefaro said Long Islanders would benefit since the region is home to a high percentage of employees and professionals considered essential. 

The fund would provide a $13-per-hour increase in pay for essential workers across several jobs and professions, up to $25,000 by the end of the year. Additionally, the fund would provide up to $15,000 as a recruitment incentive for health and home care workers and first responders.

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